There are two tiny words that have echoed through the film industry in this last decade, quieting the pulse of Hollywood's traditional film studios and causing all who deal in it to look up and take note of the sheer might that they have come to represent - and they are - streaming services.
Since the dawn of cinema with D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation in 1915, the cinematic experience became a regular part of life that generations of people took for granted.
Most didn’t think about the possibilities of an era where the phrase ‘direct to video’ would amount to be more than a laughingstock by those who took it seriously and continued to operate amidst rising inflation and a greater disparity in the living wage.
Well, the era did arrive; a mere 100 years after Griffith made the first-ever feature-length film, Netflix had started to become a dominant and viable way of directly interacting with the audience without them having to leave the safety of their four walls.
Now in 2021, after a year of challenge and pain for most of humanity caused by a pandemic that has ravaged the very idea of consumer-capitalism in almost every public setting, the term ‘streaming services’ has come to mean salvation.
Without the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, and Disney + we simply would have been caught in the depths, the doldrums if you will, with no light visible to save us from the dull and dreary nature of staying inside.
More than that, the film industry itself would have been ground to a complete halt without those companies too, as they were the only ones with the established means to get the work out there to the people without most production companies losing a fortune in the process.
Paramount, in-particular, has enjoyed massive success with selling off their projects to streaming services; mostly because the competition between Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu & co is so tense right now that they are willing to pay huge premiums to simply offer the content to their customers.
All this is what brings me to a certain point; the process of a worldwide pandemic has accelerated what was the inevitable outcome anyway. Streaming services were already well on their way to dominating large parts of the industry before this happened, and now they have cemented themselves as legitimate heavyweights in the kingdom that celluloid built.
Where we are now is a nexus point for the industry. Gone are the days where a movie came out in theatres because it was a God-given right of the artist involved, the halcyon days of Welles and Fellini are a long and distant memory; though in truth, even Welles struggled to get his films made by the Hollywood studio system at the time, so perhaps not so halcyon after all.
Many iconic names have jumped on the big bandwagon that big tech like Apple and Amazon offer, or big business such as Netflix or Disney since they are well known for offering further creative freedom to their artists and not beholden to a box-office haul.
With people like Ava DuVernay, Jon Favreau, Sacha Baron Cohan, Paul Greengrass, Regina King, and David Fincher all having worked with the companies over the past few years; it seems that many are willing to just get their work out to as many people as possible via streaming, knowing that home viewing systems are at a standard now that in a lot of cases, especially in indie film, it is making less and less difference to the audience’s viewing experience in output quality. Even all-round icon Tom Hanks called the dawn of streaming ‘a sea change’, adding that it was ‘due’ and had been ‘coming anyway’, regardless of the pandemic.
Of course, the biggest win for any of them was Netflix, and now Apple’s, coup of getting the legendary Martin Scorsese onto their platform. Netflix gave him what nobody else seemed to want to, which was the financial means to do what he wanted in making his three-and-a-half-hour masterpiece, The Irishman. There was nothing, not even a slight whiff in the way of studio interference, and when it was done every studio who didn’t finance the film must have looked on enviously at what had been released.
The Irishman was shown in some theatres at the request of Martin Scorsese, though many refused to deal with what Netflix was asking by way of release windows. Netflix demanded a 60-day window as opposed to the traditional 90; meaning that most-watched from their homes as they comfortably settled in for this massive epic to unfold before their eyes.
However, some still like to glorify the past epochs of theatrical releases; in 2017, Christopher Nolan responded in answer to the question, would you ever work with Netflix? ‘No, well, why would you? If you make a theatrical film, it’s to be played in theatres’.
It is worth saying that Mr Nolan, in the same interview, then praised Amazon Prime because of the 90-day theatrical release window they give some of their films, and later apologised for his comments about Netflix directly to CEO Ted Sarandos. However, his apology was in relation to his lack of respect, not for the content of his message.
In some way, it was made to look even worse just three years later, when Warner Brothers’ call to release Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Tenet, into cinemas during the summer lull of the pandemic ended in relative disaster. It became clear that they grossly underestimated the fear that many had about open spaces and being in a large room with a hundred other people, any of which could be carrying a deadly disease, so the film financially wound up costing the studio anywhere from 50 to 100 million dollars.
So, what was supposed to be a triumph of theatrical releases in a time of hardship, would wind up being a sign of the rapidly changing landscape, sped up by pestilence. One might now think that Tenet would have done very, very well on a streaming service; because being honest, who wouldn’t have paid a huge amount of money to have a Christopher Nolan film on their roster. Whether it was wholly Warner Brothers’ call to make this decision, or whether Mr Nolan pressured them into taking the theatrical route, we’ll never know.
Irrespective of last summer, Mr Nolan has continued his verbal assault on streaming in general, this year slating long-time partner Warner Brothers for their plan to release their films simultaneously in theatres and on HBO Max; describing it as ‘the worst streaming service’ in the process.
During an interview with the BBC’s Newsnight in 1999, the late great David Bowie - who Christopher Nolan was to direct in his 2006 film, The Prestige - foretold of what the internet could be by saying that ‘the actual context and the state of content is going to be so different than anything we can envisage at the moment, where the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in sympatico’.
The iconic musician and actor was more right than any of us knew at the time, and his comments now echo as an early telling of what was to come. In terms of cinema, the user and the provider now have a very different relationship than the one they once had. Where it used to be brokered through a middleman, here represented by a traditional cinema, now it is given straight to your home and just a click away from your living room screen.
It then feels like those that are fighting against streaming services and their delivery system to an audience are waging war against the incoming tide. Whilst many are offloading their content to the streamers in this time of theatrical crisis, don’t expect it to stop once everybody has had their vaccine.
Though traditional cinema will always have a place in the world, especially for blockbuster films such as The Avengers, much has changed beyond what was a staple even a decade ago, and now one can’t help but think of the words of Bob Dylan when he wrote, ‘the times they are a-changing’. Well, they have changed and now is the time to move on with them, not become bogged down in a mire of petty comments and argument.
© 2021 Matt N